Reminiscence Arts – Replaying, Recreating, and Remembering who we are

On Monday I attended a collaborative workshop run by Age Exchange and Leonard Cheshire Disability on at St Cecilia’s. The LCD Rewind Project is run by LCD Archives and records interviews with care home residences and staff to capture the history of the charity. I’ve recently joined LCD as a digital volunteer, transcribing the audio or films. Since I deal only with the oral histories recordings, the product of reminiscences, it was great learning about the processes involved. While I am not at the frontline conducting reminiscences, this notion of reminiscence is very interesting to me from a narrative point of view. Zoe, who ran the workshop, is a creative artist and works with Age Exchange and other charities like Jewish Care as well as healthcare professionals in reminiscence workshops.


What is Reminiscence?


One of the first questions we asked was: what is reminiscence? Naturally I turn to a dictionary.

Reminiscence n.

1 A story told about a past even remembered by a narrator; the enjoyable recollection of past events; a collection in literary form of incidents that someone remembers

2 A characteristic of one thing that is suggestive of another

Reminisce v.

1 indulge in enjoyable recollection of past events

To reminiscence is clearly to deal in the past, to recover (re-collect) memories in form of stories. The afore-mentioned definitions don’t quite match what we wanted to convey in ‘reminiscence’. Zoe, the workshop leader, warns us that reminiscence must not be confused with nostalgia, which is something that some people find problematic. Nostalgia suggests that the past is better, more ‘enjoyable’, some forgotten Golden Age, which is not always the case. Nor is reminiscence simply history. It doesn’t have to be factual or accurate, or even real. Reminiscing is not about romanticising the past, or chronologically reporting what happened, but about recalling and reflecting on what the past means to the person.

This is the list we came up with:

  • Thinking about or recovering the past
  • Telling stories
  • Sharing memories
  • Personal history/ family history
  • Life-stories
  • Reflection/ evaluation
  • Documenting experiences
  • Valuing the person and consolidating self-worth

Reminiscence is not one person dictating a story to someone else (though the other person will usually be recording or writing it down). It is about sharing memories. As the likes of Arthur Frank and Rita Charon have long pointed out, it is not what is being said but how and what it does that are important. In recording histories, we want to take down the history, but we cannot forget that this history is also a memory, something that belongs to a person who was there and for whom it has immense significance. Whether the person gets the historical facts correct or not doesn’t matter, nor are we to judge. The point of reminiscence is to capture the memory, error and prejudice all.

Reminiscence as art

Reminiscence Arts is Age Exchange’s unique approach to working creatively. Simply put, it is the creative exploration of memories.

[Image: REMINISCENCE The recollection of one’s own life-experiences. REMINISCENCE WORK The stimulation and valuing of people’s reminiscences through social and creative activities]

We’ve established that reminiscence is more than just thinking about the good ol’ days over a cup of tea. Reminiscence is an art, it take skills and effort. In one exercise, the group was asked to talk in pairs about an object we had each brought for a minute, while the other sat and listened. Some people found it relatively easy; I found it quite difficult because while I could whittle away for an hour about the use of imagery in love poetry in the 18th century, I struggle to open up about why I chose that particular personal object to a stranger. As the listener, it was equally difficult as I longed to interrupt with a comment about how beautiful my partner’s object was, or ask how it came about. The purpose of the exercise was to illustrate the importance of creating a safe and comfortable environment to conduct reminiscence, and to show how productive silence can actually be.

As found in narrative medicine, listening is by no means passive. The listener is engaged in active empathy, trying to take in what is being said and the feelings conveyed. The dynamics are slightly different in a therapeutic relationship between a doctor and patient, but the logic is the same: Listen carefully, don’t interrupt, and value what is shared.


“Person Centred Care means listening to people to find out what is most important to them. Assumptions are not made. Care is holistic and centres on the whole person: who they are, their life before, and how they currently feel. The emphasis is on what they can do, rather than what they cannot do. It is about working with people – not doing to them.” (Age Exchange DVD ‘Listen to What I’m Saying’)

During the session, the facilitator should always put the wellbeing of the person first

  • Person-centre approach
  • Good communication & active listening
  • Genuine interest
  • Respect for personal choice
  • Fidelity & confidentiality
  • Establishing trust and rapport
  • Respect & support for painful emotions
  • Non-judgemental attitude
  • Warmth

The facilitator is not a historian; she is not there to take notes and record word for word what the person says. She is there to support the person’s reminiscence, to provide a safe and inclusive environment in which memories can be recalled, shared – and made.

Reminiscence in good practice

  • Good group facilitation skills & respecting equal opportunities

Not memories are good, and some can be painful. The reminiscence facilitator will have to use his/her own judgement to decide whether to include sensitive information. When conducting reminiscence in groups, it can be even more difficult as the facilitator need to ensure that everyone is included. For LCD, this can be challenging as some people’s conditions make this hard (e.g. speech problems, dementia, learning disabilities). One volunteer recalls how in one workshop, a lady with dementia would dominate the conversation by repeating the same story over and over again whether related to the subject or not, unaware that she has already told it and oblivious to the rest of the group’s reactions. Reminiscence workshops can be hard work because the facilitator must be mindful of including everyone in activities, regardless of their conditions. In this case, the lady with dementia should not be made to feel like a burden while at the same time the rest of the group need to be given a chance to speak as well.

  • Use of memory triggers that stimulate 6 sense
  • Use of inclusive and relevant themes
  • Range of imaginative and creative opportunities

One of the most intriguing points of the workshop for me was the emphasis on senses as triggers for memory. Smells, places, colours, sounds, tastes are powerful stimulants for recalling forgotten feelings and memories, as well as starting conversations. I liked this body-centred approach to memory because it takes us away from the neuroscience. The brain may be where the data are, but the body as whole is involved in using the data. In this approach, memory is inscribed in the body, which is much closer to how we experience reminiscence.

In a workshop, the reminiscence facilitator brings a collection of items, or plans group activities that interest everyone. This might be a collection of old photographs, postcards, vintage clothes, old phones, cookery books, jazz music – something that can make someone go ‘Oh I remember that when I was…’ In our workshop we were given a variety of toys, books, and household objects. I chose a twiddle-mitt, a knitted mitten with lots of buttons, a zip, and strings for fiddling; someone chose a bottle of constipation pills made of ox gall, liquorice, and soap; someone else chose a mini red bus pencil sharpener. The range of conversations that came out of these objects were astounding. The gentleman chose the Brylcreem because it reminded him of his father, who always wore his hair with Brylcreem and made him think of old barber shops. The pills (unappetisingly black with pungent smells) were interesting to another volunteer because she also takes constipation pills. Kinaesthetic engagement is also a key factor and getting people involved in touching objects and re-enacting movements are not only fun, they are very useful triggers for stimulating memories that are remembered by the body. By using a range of senses, even those who cannot verbally communicate their memories can join in.


Reminiscence art is not new – we all know how to recall the past – what is ‘new’ about a reminiscence workshop is its place in the modern world. Reminiscence is decidedly not therapy. It doesn’t aim to bring out repressed memories, or resolve emotional conflicts. The person chooses what to talk about and what to share. Anyone can participate, not just someone who has dementia in their late 70s. As the youngest person at the workshop who was born in the 90s, I felt just as engaged as the other older members of the group who remembered the 40s. Memory is not something one owns nor something that remains static and unchanged – it’s something created and shared. Even though I wasn’t alive in the 80s, I loved hearing about the old buses and hair creams ( I had no idea what ‘Brylcreem’ was). Reminiscence gives us a rare chance to be creative and reflect on what the past means to us now. If Locke is right that personal memories are what makes the ‘person’, then it is all the more important that we keep refreshing our memories, to find out who we are.


Rewind is Leonard Cheshire Disability’s new disability history project which showcares the history of the charity through oral histories and films, and aims to capture the stories of disabled people and volunteers. The website will be launched later this year.

Age Exchange is a UK national charity that uses reminiscence arts to support people with dementia and their families. They run reminiscence workshops for carers and arts projects for the community.




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